Having traveled the world for National Geographic for over 30 years, I have a special affinity for fellow travelers. That is why I was drawn to my two most recent story subjects, Marco Polo and Zheng He. And while following in their footsteps for the past five years, I’ve gotten to know them well, like good travel companions, and have been awed by their accomplishments in bringing the far corners of the world closer together.
Covering Marco Polo, the first of this trailblazing pair, took me back to the late 13th century, venturing from west to east, as he did when he left Venice for the Far East. Though not the first European to travel and live in China, Marco Polo was the first Westerner to write about it. His book, The Description of the World, was the greatest trove of geographic knowledge ever written, then or since. The wonder and enthusiasm of his descriptions of China fired the imagination of generations of explorers to follow. One, Christopher Columbus, happened to discover America thanks to his passion to find a new route to the riches of the East as described by Marco Polo.
And 100 years later, came Zheng He, with his enormous fleet of treasure ships carrying the same trade goods that Marco Polo had so enthusiastically described. His seven trips through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean carried the best of Chinese goods and culture abroad. In exchange, Zheng He returned with something even more valuable than the spices and gems he obtained in foreign ports: a knowledge of the customs and traditions of other civilizations, obtained through peaceful and mutually beneficial means rather than through aggression or subjugation. Perhaps his outsider status, as a eunuch and as a Muslim in Ming China, gave him a special appreciation of other cultures. Whatever the reason, Zheng He's mission of diplomacy and trade promoted peace and prosperity in a world beset by wars of conquest and policies of domination. It was a sad day when China turned its back on the world and closed its doors after Zheng He's death.
Both men were modern thinkers, far ahead of their times. Marco Polo, as the world's first travel journalist, described a spectacularly wealthy and far more advanced and prosperous people living peacefully on the other side of the world in China. He altered the way the East and the West were to view each other in centuries to come, at a time when his fellow Europeans believed in mythical beasts, half-man and half-animals, living outside their borders. And Zheng He proved that commerce and international exchange could be accomplished without conquest or domination, to the betterment of all.
It is my good fortune, perhaps my own legacy, to be given the opportunity to bring these giants of world exploration to a 21st-century audience. I've been proud to have them accompany me on my trips of a lifetime and will value what I've learned from them as I embark on my next journey.